A number of years ago as a divinity school student I found myself attending a rally for the activist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal who at the time was on death row. Among the speakers that day was a former political prisoner who imparted a lesson derived from hard experience. With an emphatic passion, he advised, “Don’t fight to fight. Fight to win.” Since that day, I have thought about that admonition a number of times. In the ministry of pursuing social change, one can easily get swept away in the strongly felt impulses of the moment while failing to take a step back to consider the best strategic path forward if the goal is to make a tangible difference in the lives of those suffering.
In taking this reflective step back, no book has been as valuable to me in recent times as the book This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark Engler and Paul Engler. In this compelling, easy to read book, the Englers mix history, biography, and social movement theory in putting forth an argument about how social change is best achieved. The crux of their argument contrasts two competing schools of thought in the process of creating a synthesis of the two.
On the one hand, there is the school of thought associated with Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizing pioneer. This school of thought focuses on the building of local community organizations that wage narrowly focused struggles in seeking to win concessions through concerted pressure and pragmatic compromise. On the other hand, there is the school of thought associated with scholar Frances Fox Piven. This school of thought focuses on disruptive, seemingly spontaneous mass mobilizations that extend beyond the structures of organizations and seek far reaching changes.
In defining a synthesis of these opposing schools, the Englers point to the Serbian movement built by the anti-Milosevic organization Otpor. In recognition that a different approach to change was needed than those of the past, Otpor was not only deliberate and disciplined in their organizing but also highly disruptive in mobilizing large numbers of people both within and beyond traditional organizational structures.
The Englers situate their reflective analysis within the tradition of strategic nonviolent action. In doing so, they are not interested in the sometimes mystical ponderings of nonviolent philosophy. They are instead interested in nonviolence as a method that crucially involves “political conflict, disruption, and escalation.” Their goal is to understand these methods so that they might be fruitfully applied to help create and harness moments of the whirlwind when mass mobilizations open up opportunities for substantial change.
Ultimately, the book provides a fresh discussion of nonviolence that is focused on results—i.e., fighting to win. In doing so, parts of the book may well challenge the ethos of many churches. A church, for example, might easily celebrate a romanticized vision of nonviolence in the civil rights movement while simultaneously shrinking away from anything even suggestive of conflict in today’s world.
One core idea presented by the Englers is the importance of polarization in creating societal change. Movements inevitably force division. They compel people to take a side. This has the effect of creating a situation of heightened awareness in which sympathizers are turned into activists, while the opposition eventually becomes more and more isolated.
In bringing such insights to churches, a thoughtful and nuanced discussion is needed. Many churches today are particularly uneasy when it comes to polarization that is partisan in nature. Yet, social movement activists like the Rev. William Barber II have demonstrated a way to generate a different kind of polarization that pivots away from partisan polarization. Barber, for instance, reframes issues through the language of morality. He is fond of saying, “Some issues are not left or right or liberal versus conservative. They are right versus wrong.”
Another approach to polarization is to unashamedly embrace and further it. At a three-day conference called the Prophetic Resistance Summit, the Rev. Dwayne Royster delivered a keynote speech in which he declared, “We’re not the ‘nice’ faith people!” He continued, “We are not just going to show up at a vigil and be glad [a politician] invited us! We have some demands, we are the prophets of the people, and we have something to say!”
Like a good conversation partner, the work of the Englers provokes deeper reflection. For those seeking to follow in the prophetic tradition of our faith, their book serves as an invaluable resource for inspiring the kind of strategic thinking that can truly make a difference in the lives of others.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He can be found on Twitter as @The_Green_Rev.